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Beginning Genealogy Lessons
by Don B. Dale

Lessons To Help You Get Started & Sometimes To Keep Going

Lesson 6: Court House/County Research

Lesson 6 is courtesy of Jean R. Legried, copyright 1996. Her work is available at: www.rootsweb.com/~newbie. Used with permission. Note: Lessons with"added notes" italicized are added "Net Notes" (N2) by DB Dale.
  This lesson is a bit long - lot of material to cover: The definition and 
use of records, as well as the differentiation as to whether a record is to 
be considered as public or non-public, is regulated by state law.  Laws 
differ from state to state -- what is a public record in one state may be
non-public in another.  Acquaint yourself with the laws in the states where
you will be searching. 
   Where these records are kept can also vary from state to state. In some 
states, especially the northeastern states, these records are considered as 
town, municipal, or village records and will be found in said repositories.
As county records in other states they're found in the county courthouse. 
   County boundaries changed so what is considered Washington County now may
well have been a part of a neighboring county during the era you are research-
ing. It's happened that a county has two courthouses! In one Kansas County 
I recall reading about an actual battle over where the county seat would be.
A good reference for helping determine county boundaries, years, and record 
locations is THE HANDY BOOK FOR GENEALOGISTS, 8th ed., edited by George B. 
Everton (Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, 1991)
   Always call ahead to determine county hours and record availability.  
When you go to a courthouse or town office, know what you are looking for.  
Be firm but friendly (genealogists aren't a clerk's favorite customers!). 
Dress for business avoiding blue jeans and sloppy shirts.  Treat the 
records with respect, thanking the clerk when you leave.  

        1. Birth certificates
        2. Marriage licenses and intentions to marry
        3. Marriage license returns
        4. Marriage records
        5. Death certificates
    Only 18 states (by law) registered vital records before 1900: Vermont 
(1779)Massachusetts (1842), New Jersey (1843), Connecticut (1859), Hawaii, 
Rhode Island Virginia (1853), Delaware (1861), Florida (1865), Michigan(1867), 
Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York (1880),Illinois (1887), Maine (1892),
North Dakota (1893), Maryland (1898).  Other states have incomplete records 
before 1900.  Errors occurred in these records and, since there wasn't an 
uniform reporting system, some events were never recorded.  However, early 
Americans were religious people and kept good church records.  Sometimes 
this information can be found in church records.  (See  I Lesson - Church, 
Cemetery, and School Records). 
   A very important approach to learning family history is through land 
records. Land records relating to the buying and selling of land can yield 
family and local history facts.  Land records include deeds, mortgages, 
leases, liens, contracts, powers of attorney, releases, notices of action, 
judgments, and decrees. 
  Considerable family history can be gleaned through a careful search of 
deeds. This is especially true in the case of an estate of a person who died 
without leaving a will.  When real estate is involved it becomes necessary 
to "quiet the title."  Such a file will often give the names and residences 
of living children, as well as any children who may be deceased and the 
children of the deceased children.

   A deed often mentions relationships between the grantee and the grantor.  
It can also give you a clue as to where the seller moved if he wasn't able 
to sell the land before he had to move or if he bought the property before 
he moved to the area.  In tracking down my 3rd ggf, Edward Tyndal Dale, I 
learned from his wife's will that there was property in Arkansas.  The 
record of deeds showed he had purchased the property while still in NY in 
Medical School in 1877.
   There is a great deal that can be learned from land records -- much more 
than just the legal description of the land.  A informative article relating
to land records is "Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed 
Records", GENEALOGY BULLETIN, no. 25, Jan-Feb 1995.

If a person owned real or personal property, they had to pay taxes!  Even 
if your ancestor wasn't a land owner, he still had to pay a personal 
property tax.  These records often are not indexed and are hard to search
but they can give you valuable information about your ancestor's financial 
and personal status.  If a man is shown as a tax payer in 1815 but his wife
is the payer in 1816, you have a clue as to when to look for a probate file.

These are excellent sources!  Ask for a probate file, not just a will, 
beause the complete file has so much more to offer.  There is probably no 
source material more important in family history than probate files.  
They consist largely of wills and administrations and other documents 
relating to the settlement of the estate of the deceased or incompetent 
person.  In a man's will he named his wife and children,  or, if he did not 
leave a will, the court determined his heirs and distributed his estate to 
his widow and children.  In either case, the family group was determined by 
sound legal evidence.  A will is primary material and is presented in the 
first person, as though the testator was speaking directly to you and 
bonding generations past and present. To properly evaluate probate
information, you should become somewhat familiar with the social/cultural 
conventions of the time.   This is a lengthy study area and too involved to
include here.  Your public  library will have books that explain such social 
conventions and there is a short but informative section on the subject in 
KNOW YOUR ANCESTORS by Ethel W. Williams, Ph.D (Rutland, Vt: Charles E. 
Tuttle Co., 1960).  

There was no regulation of naturalization until 1906, when Congress 
established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.  Before 1906 
naturalization was a matter for the courts.   The process of naturalization
is quite cumbersome and the records have suffered because of it.  The laws 
concerning naturalization changed many times so the records that are 
available depend on the era your ancestor immigrated.  Before 1906 
naturalization was a court matter and records will be found in the court 
records.  After 1906 many records can be found in the National Archives
Branches or in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An excellent 
book on the subject is LOCATING YOUR IMMIGRANT ANCESTOR by James C. and
Lila Lee Neagles (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1975). Being 
from the Midwest, many of my ancestors were Germans from Russia, with over 
200 immigrating in 1876.  One of my grandfathers was born in 1892 in a sod 
hut in Eastern Kansas.  When his parents arrived 16 years earlier they 
didn't speak English only German and Russian and as the flight from Russia 
was in large part due to reasons of opression, they kept to themselves.
Even if birth records had been kept before 1900, because of the above 
reasons, there probably wouldn't have been a report. My grandparents 
obtained their birth certificates in the 1930s, through special applicationCOURT RECORDS
These very important records are seldom used.  There  are two categories of 
Court records -- criminal and civil.  Civil actions deal with the protection 
of individual rights and, generally speaking, every civil action has two 
parties: plaintiff and defendant.  Both civil and criminal court files are 
indexed.  The United States court system is a bit complex for discussion 
here but your public library will have helpful books.

Divorce is one of the civil court actions.  Files contain information on the
children, their ages and personal data on the divorcing couple.  Having had 
occassion to bank finance a number of divorces over the years, I can safely 
say some of these files could provide an entire chapter for your family 
history book, if there was such an event and you were so inclined. Many 
court clerks in recent years have established a separate index for divorce
records but in earlier years they can be found in the civil court files.

        a. Register of voters (Remember, a convicted felon can't vote)
        b. Coroner's files
        c. Minutes of Board of Supervisors/Commissioners meetings
                * These can be helpful to find someone who was buried "by 
                the county" in the early years and doesn't have a death 
                certificate or grave marker and for information on people 
                who lived at the Poor Farm.
        d. Miscellaneous records pertaining to land
                * These will sometimes give relationships.
        e. Military records(see Military Section: 
                * Discharge certificates
                * DD-214 (separation papers)
                * Individual veterans are responsibile for filing their 
                records, but their unit administration forwarded the individuals
                records to the personnel center. I checked my records once 
                and found they weren't accurate.  Went to Washington for two
                weeks of duty and checked in with the HQ. Finally found a
                sargent in charge of the records and asked him what the   
                problem was.  He'd just taken over the office, seems the 
                reservists paper work/filing had backed up for over five 
                years, he was told to clean it up, all records had been 
                destroyed.  I went from 15 years toward retirement to 9
                with one bonfire, I wasn't alone. Three reserve units, two 
                had disbanded - You're suppose to resubmit or call it a day?  

ABSTRACT - A summary of the important points in a book or manuscript.
ABSTRACTOR - A person who prepares an abstract.
ABSTRACT OF TITLE - An epitome of the successive conveyances and other facts
           upon which a person's title to a piece of land rests.
ADMINISTRATION - The management and disposal, under the local authority, of 
   the estate of an intestate, or of a testator having no competent executor.
ADMINISTRATOR - A person to whom letters of administration, that is 
   authority to administer the estate of a deceased person, have been granted 
   by the proper court.  He/She differs from an executor in that he is 
   appointed by the court, while the executor is appointed by the deceased.
ADMINISTRATION WITH WILL ANNEXED - Administration granted where the testator
   has appointed no executor, or where his/her appointment of an executor, 
   for any cause, has failed, as by death, incompetency or refusal to act.
ANTENUPTIAL CONTRACT - A contract made before marriage, between a man and a 
   woman in respect to their property rights.
APPLICATION, LAND - A formal request for rights in, or eventual title to
   public lands.
ATTEST - To witness the execution of a written instrument, at the request of
   one who makes it, and subscribe to the same as a witness.
BEQUEST - A gift by will; a legacy.
BOUNTY LAND - Land given by the government, as a bounty, usually in 
   compensation for military service.
BOUNTY LAND WARRANT - A right granted for military service, involving a 
   specific number of acres of unallocated public land.
CADASTRAL SURVEY, MAP OR PLAT - A public land survey for the purpose of 
   registering the quantity, value, and ownership of real estate, used in 
   apportioning taxes; usually made on a scale of 25" to the mile, or a
   square inch to the acre.
CODICIL - An instrument made subsequently to a will, and modifying it in 
   some respects.  It must be executed in the same manner as the will 
   itself, and forms a part of it.
DEED - A sealed instrument in writing, duly executed, and delivered, by 
   which one person conveys land, tenements, or hereditaments to another.
DEVISEE - A person to whom lands or other real property are devised or 
   given by will.
DIVISOR - A giver of lands of real estate by will; a testator.
DISTRICT LAND OFFICE PLAT BOOKS - Books of maps which show the location
   of the land of the patenter.
DISTRICT LAND OFFICE TRACT BOOKS - Books which list individual entries
   by range and township.
DONATION APPLICATION - An application for frontier land in Florida, 
   New Mexico, Oregon or Washington, which was given to a settler and 
   fulfilled certain conditions.
ET. AL.; ET ALIBI; ET ALII - And others; on a land deed, is a clue to 
   look for "the others".
EXECUTOR - A person appointed by a testator to carry out the directions 
   and requests of his/her will, and to dispose of the property according
   to his/her testamentary provisions, that are to be carried out after 
   his/her death.  An EXECUTRIX is a female executor.
GRANT - To give or bestow, as a land grant.
GRANTEE - A person to whom a grant is made.
GRANTOR - A person by whom a grant is made.
HOLOGRAPHIC WILL - A will made in the handwriting of the testator.
INTESTATE - Not having made a will; not disposed of by will.
INVENTORY - A list of the assets in the estate of a deceased person, 
   filed by executor, or administrator of an estate, in probate court.
LAND ENTRY PAPERS - Papers filed in connection with the acquisition of 
   public lands, and including bounty land warrants, donation, pre-emption 
   and homestead applications, private land claims, land scrip and purchase 
   by cash or in installments.  They include the name of the person who
   acquired the land, his place of residence, dates when application and 
   land were entered, and date of patent.
LEGACY - A bequest left by last will and testament.
LEGAL DESCRIPTION - The description and identification of the location of 
   a particular parcel of land, according to the official plat of survey.
LIBER - A book in which deeds, mortgages, wills and other public records 
   are kept.
NUNCUPATIVE WILL - An unwritten will, having been declared or dictated by 
   the testator in his/her last sickness, before a sufficient number of 
   witnesses, and afterwards reduced to writing.
PATENT - A document which transfers legal title to public lands.
PATENTEE - A person who receives a patent.
PRE-EMPTION APPLICATION - An application by a person who had already 
   settled on unappropriated land.
PRIVATE LAND CLAIM - A claim to land granted to individuals from foreign 
   countries prior to the cession of that land to the United States.  
   These were in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana,
   Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado, and New Mexico.
PROBATE - The process of proving a will or settling an estate.
PUBLIC DOMAIN - Public lands of the United States; comprised, Illinois, 
   Indiana, Michigan, part of Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,
   and all states west of the Mississippi River except Texas,Hawaii, and Alaska.
STATUS PLAT - A copy of the plat of survey upon which has been diagrammed 
   and noted such information as is necessary to determine the Federal 
   ownership of public lands and resources.
TESTAMENT - The disposition of one's property after death.
TESTATE ESTATE - An estate which is disposed by will.
TESTATOR - A deceased person who died leaving a will.
TRACT BOOK - A narrative, journal-like record which is an index to and 
   digest of all essential actions and transactions which effect public 
   lands.  District Land Office Tract Books list entries by range and 
WARRANT - To guarantee to a purchaser or other grantee, the title to, or 
   quality, or quantity of, the thing sold or granted, as a warranty deed.
WILL - Any legally executed instrument in which a person makes disposition 
   of his/her property to take effect after his/her death.

Beginning Genealogy Lessons Parent Directory.
Return to Source List for Genealogy Research or to the Kansas Heritage Group.
Originally posted: 08-May-97. Update: 22 July 2005.